Eighty-eight years ago, a man of extraordinary heart, courage, and understanding was born. On March 31st, we celebrate not only the birthday of my grandfather, César Estrada Chávez, but more importantly the spirit of civic engagement and social justice he espoused throughout his life.
César Chávez was raised amongst migrant farm workers who experienced difficult conditions working in the agricultural fields. Men, women, and children received little pay for backbreaking labor and dreadful environments. These farm laborers lacked simple necessities such as access to drinking water, health care, and a livable wage. Many lived in scanty shacks made of tin, without electricity and cramp, unsanitary conditions. Children were raised into a vicious cycle of poverty. Life expectancy for farm workers was 49 years.
My grandfather dedicated his life to organizing and giving a voice to these voiceless laborers, who were often too afraid to advocate for themselves, for fear of punishment or losing their job. Many did.
Organizers had previously tried to unionize to create more humane conditions for farm workers but unfortunately were largely unsuccessful. Yet, César Chávez believed in an idea that America is all too familiar with – that with hard work, determination, and purpose, our dreams of a more prosperous and just society can become reality. Despite the widely conceived notion that the status of farm workers would never improve, my grandfather developed a “yes we can” or what he coined a “Si Se Puede” attitude. That attitude was contagious. He galvanized a movement that captured the attention of an entire country and even internationally.
For decades, despite setbacks and difficulties, he preserved that spirit. Due to this, I consider myself to have lived a privileged childhood, not in wealth, but in experience. Surrounded by some of the country’s top organizers, I spent my childhood at incredible meetings, participating in picket lines, and right beside my grandfather handing out leaflets outside of super markets. It was tough work, but we made an impact in the lives of people. And that’s what it was always about, “it’s not about grapes or lettuce, it is always about people” he once said.
In many ways, César Chávez’s spirit is alive and well across the country. The fact that people are organizing and using non-violent action to raise awareness about critical issues facing our nation is a testament to the legacy my grandfather left. Today, we must continue to strive to ensure that everyone, regardless of where they’ve come from or the community they reside in, can have access to quality education, a living wage, and affordable healthcare. We must continue to fight for an immigration system that protects immigrants from labor abuses and celebrates the invaluable contributions they make to our local economies and communities. Our work is not finished and the road to progress is not easy, but we have and will continue to make progress.
On César Chávez Day we celebrate the legacy of a champion for social justice and we acknowledge the determination of those who continue his work today. As we endure through the setbacks and rejoice during the impactful victories, we might find comfort and motivation in the words of my abuelo, César Estrada Chávez:
“It is possible to become discouraged about the injustice we see everywhere. But God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. He gives us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we will use our limited time on earth. It is an awesome opportunity.”